Infancy

I was told two things about my birth by my parents. First, that I was born with dark, curly hair which so pleased my father that he went round and boasted of it to all his friends. When he returned to the hospital the second day, my hair had become light brown and straight. The first disappointment.

I was also told that when I was born, I seemed to be ill, so a nurse took me away from my mother. Apparently there was then a change of shift or some such interruption because, after some time, my mother asked about me and no one knew where I was. The nurse had gone. They searched for quite a while, and only after some hours they found me alone in a stainless steel tub. And I was ill — I had, by then, my second day, somehow caught chicken pox. There must have been other little stories around my birth, but this is all I ever heard, and I heard it over and over. And chicken pox was just the beginning. I became the favourite rest stop on the disease freeway for many years.

This may have had something to do with what my mother revealed only many years later. When she was pregnant with me — her first child, at nearly 39 years old — her doctor espoused a trend current at the time that held that women should only gain a very small amount of weight when pregnant, the weight of the baby and placenta, maybe ten pounds. So he had my mother on a diet of lettuce and tomatoes for the last few months of her pregnancy and, by god, it worked! My mother, normal weight 105 lbs, weighed 112 when I was born.

I used to wonder, many years later, if my birth was a trick played on my father by my mother. At the time of my birth in the 1940s, my mother was well past the allowable child bearing age when I was born; my father was 42 and I was their first and only child. I think that my father probably didn’t want children at all but my mother did; as she approached the Last Chance Saloon, I felt she must have got pregnant without my father’s immediate knowledge or permission. It certainly seemed that way later.

It always is surprising to me that people take so much unshared to the grave. Members of my family must have known so much about me, about my parents’ life, but they’re all gone now and very determinedy took almost all the secrets with them. The things I know are, of course, all derived from what others told me, mostly my mother, some from my father, some from my aunts and uncles.

But my very own earliest memory dates back to somewhere around the age of three. I remember being in a playpen and looking out through the bars at my parents’ two dogs, Zeb and Tango. Zeb, my father’s, was a Pit Bull Terrier, and was sleeping under the coffee table. Tango, my mother’s old Airedale, had crept up onto the couch, where he was not supposed to be. All three of us heard my parents’ steps coming up the stairs to our flat. There were two businesses on the ground floor: my mother’s beauty shop and a bar called The Clam Pot, where they had been. Tango jumped down from the couch and immediately pretended to be asleep on the floor. My father came in, walked over to the couch and felt it with his hand. He knew instantly that the dog had been on it, it was warm to the touch and there were dog hairs — and the dog corroborated it by looking terribly guilty. Dogs are such patsies. My father got very angry, yelling and hitting Tango; I started crying, afraid that Tango was being hurt. My father was angry with me too, for crying, and my mother came in and took me into another room. Tango lived to sleep through another day, but both dogs died before I had much chance to know them well. Like I did with Zeke, the Pit Bull we got when I was five.

Smells

Smells stay with you the longest. They bookend your life: when you become old, smells that invaded you when you were very young, before speech, reappear. Every once in a while, a breeze from my memory wafts the smell of my mother’s beauty shop to me: the chemicals, sweet, steamy, warm that I smelled when my mother put me to nap in the back room. The musty smell of the crocheted afghan that I lay on survives, and the sweet smell of our dogs coming in wet. They are what remains of the first three years of my life.


Attacked by a Killer Octopus — in my House!

Attacked by a Killer Octopus — in my House!

My father loved fishing in the ocean. When I was about 4, he built a 14-foot rowboat that he took out as far as the Farallon Islands, 26 miles off the coast California. One day he unintentionally caught an octopus and left it in the kitchen sink where it remained, alive. Fascinated, I climbed up on a chair to examine this sea monster in the sink. For some reason, having surely to do with being six or seven years old, I licked one of the octopus’ tentacles, covered with suckers as they are. And it attached itself to my tongue! I could not get it off. I was terrified! What if it pulled me into its beaky mouth and ate me?

My friend Billy was with me and, equally terrified, went for help. First my mother came but, pulling as hard my sore tongue could stand, she still could not get the thing off.  I thought I was going to die there. Then my dad came home.  He cut the tentacle from the octopus and when it was severed, the sucker released its grip on my tongue and I was free. Three hours in the grip of a sea monster, but I was saved! I don’t remember if we ate the octopus, but I hope we did.